Create GUI dialogs in one line of code

Finding a Little Zen

© Lead Image © Martin Capek,

© Lead Image © Martin Capek,

Article from Issue 247/2021

The Zenity command-line utility lets you create simple dialog boxes with your own data or with the output of utilities and applications.

Zenity is a command-line GUI creator that has been around since 2012 and is pre-installed on most versions of Linux, including Raspberry Pis. Zenity isn't designed to be a high-level GUI development tool, but if you just need some basic scripting with dialogs, then Zenity might be a perfect fit.

I was amazed that in one line of Bash code I was able to show:

  • stats in a message dialog
  • a web page in a dialog
  • CSV data or SQL queries in a list dialog

After looking at slightly more complex applications, I found I was able to create:

  • a progress bar with dynamic values (about seven lines)
  • a form to insert user data into an SQL database (about eight lines)
  • a four-button dialog to control a Rasp PI Rover (~20 lines)

In this article, I introduce Zenity with some examples.

Getting Started

The Zenity [1] command-line utility is supported on Linux, macOS, and Windows. Zenity can display calendar, color selector, file selector, form, list, message, notification, progress, scale, and text dialogs.

The Zenity message dialog can be used like a Bash echo statement; for example, to show an information message, enter:

zenity --info --text="Some text" --title="My Title"

Information from command-line tools and utilities can be passed to Zenity. For example, the instantaneous CPU idle time from the top utility can be parsed and passed to a Zenity dialog (Figure 1):

zenity --info --text=$(top -n 1 | grep %Cpu | awk '{print $8}') --title="CPU Idle Time"
Figure 1: Message dialog with CPU idle time.

Text font and size can be modified in message dialogs in Pango markup language syntax [2]. Pango is similar to HTML, and the <span></span> set of tags is typically used to encode font and color definitions (Figure 2):

zenity --warning --text=' HIGH Temperature' --title="HDD Check"
Figure 2: Message dialog with font changes.

For scripting applications that need to pass more information to users, text-info dialogs can pass text files and URL links (Figure 3):

zenity --text-info --title="Background Reading" --html --url="" --checkbox="I read it...and I'm good to go"
Figure 3: Web page within a dialog.

For dialogs with OK and Cancel buttons, Zenity returns a   to confirm and a 1 to cancel. Zenity will not process JavaScript on a web page.

Simple dialogs like the info, warning and error dialogs will only have an OK button. All the other dialogs will have Cancel buttons, as well. The button text can be changed with the --ok-label and the --cancel-label options. More buttons can be added with the --extra-button option.

Dynamic Values

A Zenity progress dialog can show dynamic updates with scripts that use subshells. A subshell is configured with parentheses. Step executions within the subshell are paused by sleep statements.

The following code shows a three-step example of a subshell with a Zenity progress dialog (Figure 4):

echo "33"; echo "# 1/3 done" ; sleep 5;
echo "66"; echo "# 2/3 done" ; sleep 5;
echo "100";echo "# Finished" ) | zenity --progress --title="3 step test"
Figure 4: A three-step progress dialog.

When a step outputs a value, the progress bar updates. The text on the progress dialog is changed by outputting a text string that starts with a # character.

Listing 1 and Figure 5 show an example of current seconds with the progress bar rescaled from 0 to 60.

Listing 1

Scaled Progress Bar

# - progress dialog to show seconds
echo "Press [CTRL+C] to stop..."
  while :; do
  echo "# $(date +'%S')"
  # Scale 0-60 to 0-100
  echo "$(date +'%S')*100/60" | bc
  sleep 1
  ) | zenity --progress  --title="Show Time in Seconds"
Figure 5: Continuous updates in a progress dialog.

The Bash while statement lets you show dynamic values continuously until the Cancel button is pressed.

CSV Data in List Dialogs

For simple text files and known datasets, the list dialog works quite well. The dialog expects the data to be sequential. The following code creates a two-column example (Figure 6) with inline data:

zenity --list --title="2 Column Example" --column="Month" --column="Sales" Jan 100 Feb 95 Mar 77 Apr 110 May 111
Figure 6: List dialog showing inline data.

To pass a data file (CSV or text) into Zenity, the text needs to be reformatted. The tr command can replace CSV field separators like commas with a newline (\n) character (Listing 2).

Listing 2

Reformatting Data

$ cat pidata.csv
$ cat pidata.csv | tr ',' '\n'

The output can then be passed to a Zenity list with column headings (Figure 7):

cat pidata.csv | tr ',' '\n' | zenity --list --title="Pi Data" --column="Time" --column="Temp" --column="Pump"
Figure 7: List dialog showing CSV data.

Once you have some Zenity and Bash basics down, you can start doing more advanced operations, such as:

awk -F "\"*,\"*" '{print $3 "\n" $1}' pidata.csv | zenity --list --column="field3" --column="field1"

This one-line example uses Awk to parse specific data (fields 1 and 3) in the CSV file.

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